In a Creative Rut (Thanks, COVID)
November 30, 2022 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I’ve been struggling mightily with maintaining a creative life the past few years. Any insights you’ve picked up?

I’m a writer, vocationally if not professionally. Immediately prior to the pandemic, I was in grad school so I had to put writing fiction on hold, more or less. Then COVID hit, scrambling everything, and about six months in, I tried to write because I missed it. (It’s a practice that gives me important peace of mind.) I’ve been moderately successful writing daily, though sometimes I just rant and ramble about how I feel or my inability to write. Not very satisfying. Some days I am a total blank; I have literally lost a total of hours staring at a blank page only to give up. When I do write, it’s nothing I like. Nothing that feels good enough to send out into the world—while I do like writing for its own sake, I also want some of my work to reach other people. Some writing for me, some for others: that seems doable, right? I’m familiar with Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, and other writing gurus; this struggle feels different than ordinary writer’s block (which may or may not exist, but let’s leave that can of worms sealed).

I’ve also been feeling really empty creatively the past year or more. Part of that is obvious: I haven’t had many new experiences, and I’m in such circumstances that getting new ones is difficult (I live with immuno-compromised people who aren’t vaccinated, and changing those facts is beyond my capacity). So I’ve tried to make up that deficit by reading and consuming art, but nothing is sticking. No thoughts are sparked. The well I’m trying to fill up has a hole in it somewhere. I know butt-in-chair beats out inspiration more often than not, but I’m uninterested in the stuff I’ve written about before. I feel pretty well burnt out on illness and death and other topics that are on my mind but don’t, for me, lend themselves to a story. I feel like I have nothing to say beyond screaming, and I don't really want to continue screaming. I want to try to find some beauty and/or meaning in spite of all these struggles.

Googling tips for breaking out of a creative rut yields really general strategies that don’t feel relevant in the current historical moment. (I also saw this Ask, which is in the same ballpark but still not quite what I’m after.) Because I know it’s a popular response here, assume therapy is already in consideration. If you have managed to fill up your well or make a creative practice in spite of the dumpster fires of the last few years, I would love to hear about how. Specific strategies, successes, setbacks—I’m open to any and all anecdata.

Thanks in advance!
posted by xenization to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Do NOT use mind-altering substances to jumpstart a creative process or to somehow counteract the stultifying effects of Covid.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:01 AM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Struggling in a similar fashion with painting, though it's not my day job. This year I took a class which turned into a community with some staying power. A community where you can share your work, and see others work, can be very helpful. Maybe you can join an online writing collective of some kind. Or start one! (It doesn't always help, but sometimes it does.)

By the way, you wrote out this Ask, that is something! How about spend 10 minutes just writing whatever comes to your mind, right now, even if it's just "I don't know what to write" a few dozen times (I know this is one of the suggestions of some of the writers you listed). Write about a character in your same situation who was suddenly free to go wherever they wanted. Where would they go, what would they see? Sometimes it's starting that is hardest. Continuing is easier, in my experience.
posted by Glinn at 10:27 AM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

One thing I've found very helpful for lyrics is utilizing a cut up generator to reorder my words or to combine them with another text. Often what comes out is nonsense but that nonsense can spark ideas that a more linear writing process can't. It's certainly worked to send me in different directions.

There's a few here to play with. Stick something in that you wrote before (or a few things), throw in a few poems from other authors and see what it comes up with and then see what that inspires.
posted by merocet at 10:44 AM on November 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you are pretty isolated by design, because of your living situation. Have you ever done anything like a writing group or have you ever written in a coffee shop, around other people, and how did that go? I'm not asking to suggest you change your behaviors, but to suggest finding a different way to do that now. I'm not sure the path forward is more time alone, engaging with art. Rather, could you try to find an online writing group? Even if it's with just one or two people? Something you could participate in via video or audio. I also find it can be helpful to do the body double via video thing. If you can write with someone, even if it's just via Zoom, that can be helpful in focus, because then you also have a few minutes to chat and check in with them.

Which is to say, I think the antidote might be to find new and still safe ways to engage with others in your creative process.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:46 AM on November 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

Here are some things that have been helpful to me. First, as Glinn suggests, a class can be a huge kick in the ass. Not everyone responds well to being forced to produce, but I always have. So several times over the years I've taken an online writing class. Grub Street, for instance, has a lot of offerings, if that's financially doable for you.

At one point, I found Focusmate helpful. It worked for a little while, but ultimately stopped feeling useful. Though it sounds like you have no problem getting to your desk, but it's that once you're there you're not feeling the juice flow. I know you said you're taking in art, but maybe you need to just do more of that, read and read some more. I find that certain books, certain writers, make me want to write, and often it's not who I'd expect but people whose work is nothing like mine. So maybe you need to keep reading until you find something that sparks the desire in you to write.

Try reading some poetry. Copy a few pages by hand of some prose that you greatly admire. Do some writing exercises. A book I've liked is Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston. But there are plenty of others. I've had things that started as exercises turn into published stories. You never know what will happen. Read George Saunders's A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Sign up for his story club.

It's trite to say but I think it's true. These fallow periods happen. But if you want to write, the energy will be back.
posted by swheatie at 10:57 AM on November 30, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'm a performer so I'm not sure how applicable this will be but for me what helped was to really ask myself "what do I want when this is behind us?" That was 2020 so a little different than now but clarifying that helped me have more specific goals for practice/butt in seat time. It really did help me get reenergized and excited about the 'work' instead of feeling stuck in the same old same old/uninspired. And b/c those goals were very much not in my wheelhouse, it forced me to go find a class and coaches, i.e. community.
posted by snowymorninblues at 11:30 AM on November 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

Maybe try something else? When I burned out on being a writer/journalist, I volunteered in a local theater costume shop and got offered a job. Working with my hands was a great re-set from working with only with my head.
Try walking dogs, picking up trash, volunteering at food kitchen, etc..
posted by Ideefixe at 11:39 AM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Read like crazy. Find lots of stuff that is really good except damn it, the author should have done it slightly differently.

Get enough sleep. If you aren't waking up on time without an alarm, and if you are feeling like you could take a nap during the middle of the day you're not getting enough sleep.

Change the lighting in your writing area. You could be getting tired eyes from staring into a screen, or you could benefit from the addition of sunlight.

Cardio. Your brain runs on oxygen and readily available blood sugar. Try ten minutes of brisk exercise shortly before you want to write to see if it helps.

Check if you have moved on from your beloved writing themes because you are at a different stage in life. It maybe the tropes you loved don't work for you now because you have outgrown them or resolved issues or they no longer seem plausible or desirable. Your writing may be ready to move on to a more nuanced or mature genre, from wish fulfillment and stock characters to characters that are more rounded and plots that have more real life consequences.

Try writing your favourite tropes reversed. If you wrote lots and lots of stories with a protagonist and an antagonist, write from the pov of the antagonist instead, or write it from the pov of the protagonist but add enough flaws to their character and the situation that makes the antagonist not just a stock opponent.

Try if some kind of music helps you get into the writing mood.

Switch styles all together and go with something much more spare that you have previously been writing. Instead of lengthy dialogue and complexity see how terse you can be while writing. If you can only throw up a few ideas you want them to be main ones and to trim everything that made your prose textured and layered and atmospheric.

Use visuals to engage your imagination. Collect an image morgue of the images that relate to your fiction, whatever it is. It may be that your visual imagination is not as strong as it once was. So if you are writing noir murder mysteries, collect noir images, and if you are writing a contemporary novel set in a city you don't live in, collect images of that city.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:46 PM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Nthing all the people who say to find a cohort of some sort, through a group, class, or partnership. Deadlines help me with production, especially in writing. Having a standing meeting or publication deadline or event to have something together for has really helped me take both my art and writing to another level and produce. Collaborating on music operates similarly for me—having someone to check out my stuff, a muse for inspiration or even just someone trusted to share with, helps a lot with the will to create, especially to create something more polished than just a demo.
posted by limeonaire at 1:04 PM on November 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

A while ago I started petsitting as a way to cheaply travel, and then later as a way to get out of my tiny apartment. I highly recommend it if you like animals- not sure where you are, but if you're in a reasonably large city, there should be plenty of opportunities to do this (and still be able to commute to work, if you need to). I've stayed in great places, sometimes for more than a month at a stretch. If you did a longer-term stay you would also be able to go out more, temporarily, than you do if you're living with immunocompromised people. I use TrustedHousesitters, which requires a yearly fee (then each stay is free), but you could also just try posting on Nextdoor. Just getting into a new neighborhood can completely change your perspective.
posted by pinochiette at 6:36 PM on November 30, 2022

I don't write anything (fiction anyway) all year and then a couple weeks before my friends and I get together to share stuff we've written, suddenly I bang out a whole story in a day or two. Having friendly pressure from peers who will not judge you harshly but will give you reasonable feedback while sharing their own work is a great motivator.

I would also recommend changing location. Nothing crazy - just spend the afternoon at a cafe with a couple teas or coffees and a sandwich and try to write something you can't at home. I've found the different location sort of "shakes loose" stories while the slightly chaotic environment makes me focus.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:41 PM on November 30, 2022

Here's one thing that I find very helpful - constraints. Set up a daily task with strict constraints. Example: find an online magazine (or physical!) of non-famous people. Open. First photo you see, you must write a 10 sentence story about what they're doing.

May not be the best example, but I hope it's illustrative. I'm a painter, and I do something similar for daily sketches. Then, after that "jump start" my brain is in a more creative mood.
posted by banjonaut at 5:58 AM on December 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I’ve increased my creative output quite a lot in the past few years (visual arts such as painting, collaging, drawing). Mostly I just started small and did things that felt appealing in the moment. I would never have been able to be disciplined to do a daily sketchbook practice or whatever, but sometimes I’d feel like I just wanted to play with colors or cut-out images or smear paint around, so I let myself do that. Sometimes I liked the results and sometimes not so much, but it got me in the habit of creating and also not being too attached to the outcome. I also took a few online art classes (easy, low-stakes kind of stuff) and followed some YouTube tutorials for various projects. I let myself abandon anything I wasn’t feeling, and put a lot of stuff away to come back to later, and saved scraps of my work that I liked for use in future projects.

I feel like the key for me was just to play. Along those lines, maybe try a few of the following just to experience the joys of writing stuff that’s easy and that pleases you:

Listen to a song from when you were young, and write about whatever feelings or memories that come up (saw this suggested on TikTok and liked the idea enough to save it)

Play with magnetic poetry kits

Create newspaper blackout poems like Austin Kleon

Get a pack of tarot cards, shuffle them and lay out a few cards. Write a short story based on what you see in the pictures.

Take on some sort of long-term non-writing project, and write about it as you go. Some authors who have done this include Gretchen Rubin, AJ Jacobs, and Julie Powell

Maybe give visual art a try? Maybe letting a different side of your creative brain out to play could jolt you out of your rut. Make a daily collage using one magazine and 30 minutes. Scribble on a page and color in the spaces. Make a visual journal by creating artwork on the pages of a book, and adding a few sentences of writing if you feel like it.

Or something else creative like cooking, dancing, dramatic poetry reading? Just something to get your creative brain cells unstuck.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:51 PM on December 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I went through something like this a year and a half or so ago, and the two things that worked for me were experimenting with a different art form (art journaling in my case) and, paradoxically, giving myself an "official" month-long hiatus where I forbade myself to write anything. If I had any ideas during that time, I had to find a way to represent them visually in my art journal.

In the end, I only made it to about three weeks in before I couldn't stand it anymore and started to work on one of those ideas. Taking the pressure off did the trick, and since then I've done mini-versions of that sabbatical a couple more times.
posted by rpfields at 8:05 AM on December 2, 2022

I find both working from prompts and bring in online communities of writers that share our work helps with this. Even when I don't like the prompts and do a short piece for that, somehow it gets more other pieces bubbling up too. It's like it gets my brain primed for stories and it's just ready with new ideas every time I have trouble sleeping after that. (Thanks brain, at least they keep until morning.)
posted by blueberry monster at 7:28 PM on December 5, 2022

« Older Outdoor cat seems more depressed every winter   |   Mini coffee-table books? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.